CHICAGO -- County governments across the country are attempting to get relief from unfunded state mandates that are eating into their revenue sources and hampering their ability to fund some programs, officials say.

County officials claim their revenues are being gobbled up by a fiscal monster created by the New Federalism movement that was begun by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. During that time, the federal government cut back funds for states but continued to pass laws that added to state expenses. In response, state governments began passing unfunded mandates on to counties, county officials said.

"It's one of our major issues this year," said Jim Golden, research director for the National Association of Counties. "The mandates issue has become more and more important, and more local governments are trying to get states to either fund mandates or provide reimbursement."

Brad O'Hearn, an aide to Pat Halpin, executive of Suffolk County, N.Y., said unfunded state mandates cost his county $192 million a year, an increase of 38% over the last three years. He added that those costs represent about 70% of the county's annual property tax revenues.

"We're at the end of the line, we have nowhere to pass the buck," he said. Many of these areas of spending--such as courts, waste disposal, and health care -- generally are not the responsibility of municipalities.

He explained that the unfunded mandates take away the county's flexibility when putting together an annual budget, since state-required mandates must be funded before any programs are funded on the county level.

"We have to pay the bill, and that puts more pressure on our non-mandated expenses," he said. "But a large part of the rest of our budget is in the area of police protection, and try to cut a cop from your budget and see what the voters say."

Mr. Halpin has been pressing members of the New York Legislature to pass a law requiring the state of fund the full costs of any new mandates costing more than $1,000 unless the mandates are approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. The legislation was not approved by the Legislature this year.

Even if a law such as that proposed by Mr. Halpin is approved, it might not slow down new unfunded state mandates. Illinois, which enacted a similar law in 1981, has since passed 57 unfunded mandates at a cost $148 million a year to local governments, according to a 1988 report by the General Accounting Office.

Of those new mandates, the Illinois Legislature specifically voted to exempt the state from funding 25 mandates costing $107 million. The 32 other mandates cost local governments $41 million a year, while the state has only appropriated $200,000 to fund one of the mandates, the report found.

An analysis by Kristin Conroy Rubin that was published last year in the Florida State University Law Review found that state mandate laws are generally an ineffective method of stopping unfunded mandates from being passed, since legislatures can either exempt themselves from the law or simply choose to ignore it.

"Legislatures have been able to ignore the statute because a Legislature cannot statutorily bind a future one," she wrote. "Any subsequent Legislature has the ability to repeal or change a previous statute by its own ability. In the event of a conflict between a legislative action and a previous statute, the later action will prevail."

Legislature Exempts Itself

That was the case in Florida, according to Alma Neimeiser, legislative director for the Florida Association of Counties. The state enacted a law in 1978 that required the state to fund new mandates, but the Legislature routinely exempted itself from complying with the law.

Since 1981, the Florida Legislature has passed 362 laws that either mandated new costs on local governments or restricted their abilities to raise revenues, according to the Florida Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations. Before their enactment, the Legislature did not analyze what effect any of the mandates would have on local governments. The council estimated that 10 mandates approved in 1990 passed on to counties at least $30 million in additional costs.

"We had a statute that was completely ignored," Ms. Neimeiser said. "That's why we thought we needed a constitutional amendment, something the Legislature couldn't override."

In November 1990, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that allows counties and cities not to comply with unfunded state mandates unless they are approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

The amendment has some flaws, though, Ms. Neimeiser said. It exempts mandates on criminal laws, which could require expenses regarding jails and courts, and also exempts mandates that do not cost more than $1.4 million statewide.

"Everyone thinks we've scored this wonderful victory, but it's not that clear cut at this point," she said. "At the very least, we think there was some legislation in this past session that did not pass because they were considered unfunded mandates. Legislators are looking at it more closely."

California has had a constitutional amendment since 1979 that requires the state to either fund mandates or reimburse local governments for the costs.

Steve Swendiman, acting executive director of the County Supervisors Association of California, said the amendment is seriously flawed.

"If the Legislature passes a mandate but does not fund it, a county or other local government has to go before an appeals board to seek reimbursement," he said. "That process can take three to six years, and then the Legislature can still say they don't have the money to appropriate for the mandate."

Ms. Rubin also found problems with California's amendment and noted them in her analysis.

"Even though mandate reimbursement is constitutionally dictated, its effectiveness has been limited," she wrote. "Only a small number of mandates in California have been funded at time of passage. In addition, the reimbursement process is long and complex, and the burden of proof rests on local governments to show that the mandate should be reimbursed."

More Consideration Sought

Other states are trying to get legislators to more seriously consider the effect of mandates on county government. The Wisconsin Counties Association last year spearheaded a successful statewide advisory referendum calling on the state to fund all new mandates. And county leaders in Illinois are considering a similar statewide advisory referendum, according to Cook County Board President Richard Phelan.

The Wisconsin association also is pushing for legislation that would require a committee made up of legislators and local government officials to review all proposed legislation and gauge its fiscal impact on counties and other local governments.

Connie Hagen, the association's legislative services supervisor, said such a bill would raise awareness among legislators about the effects of their actions on other governments.

"Rather than use the hammer of a constitutional amendment, we're looking to work with the Legislature in a cooperative manner," she said.

Meanwhile, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio is backing a bill that would require the legislative budget office to do a fiscal impact study of any proposed laws that mandate programs for communities. If the study found that the measure would cost governments money, lawmakers would have to confirm in a roll-call vote that they were supporting an unfunded mandate.

The association's executive director, Larry Long, admitted the legislation has little chance of passing anytime soon, since legislators are wrestling with the state's own budget problems.

"It looks pretty bleak right now," he said.

State fiscal problems also were the reasons given earlier this year in Indiana and Minnesota for the failure of legislation that would have required states to fund new mandates.

Despite the setbacks, county officials said they are not going to let the issue go away.

"It [the issue] certainly is a trend now for counties and other local governments to try to address this," Mr. Golden said. "Given how tight money is today, they really have no other choice."

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